Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lilyhammer's Glaring Problem: "Out of Africa" and "Milwall Brick"

If you go through my Top Ten lists from past years, you'll see a lot of shows that either fell out of favor or soured on me within a year. In 2010, I was charmed by the exploration of the physics behind the characters' super powers, the slowly-building serialized arc, and the supporting turns of Romany Malco and Autumn Reeser in No Ordinary Family. In 2011, I couldn't stand the schmaltzy family drama that was overtaking the action. Similarly, my love affairs with Family Guy and American Dad! have both eroded to the point where I watch the shows but don't love them. In the latter, I placed it in the top 10 of 2011 on the basis that of the more grounded level of comedy for a Seth MacFarlane creation and the malleability of Roger. Shortly thereafter, Roger (and Stan for that matter) reached somewhat of a tipping point.

Last year, Lilyhammer made my Top 10 primarily because it has such a strong sense of place although I had reservations about the unlikable protagonist that I hoped could be ironed out.

The show centers around mobster Frank Tagliano who adopts the moniker Giovanni "Johnny" Henrikson as he relocates to the Norweigan city that hosted the 1994 Olympics. Henrickson fits squarely into the mobster genre as a man who's polished and charming but inwardly ruthless and amoral. He's not at Scarface-levels of depravity and shows occasional signs of decency, but he's essentially an unwavering bully.

In the pilot episode, Henrikson arrives in Norway and wants to open a bar but  Jans, the local immigrant transition official, stands in his way with threats to drown him in paperwork and a 6-month waiting period. When Giovanni tries to bribe him, Jans reacts as anyone would and threatens to report him to the police. Giovanni lucks into some incriminating photos on Jans and manages to extort him into starting his bar license early.

In this manner, the show started out as a charming fish-out-of-the-water story as our protagonist has to navigate a different world where his usual bag of tricks won't work. The problem is that pretty soon into the first season, the fish and water started becoming pretty indistinct from one another and Giovanni starts getting away with everything with very little resistance from people who might realistically resist. In the first season alone, Giovanni physically threatens a long list of people including a a pacifist farmer, a kid on a train listening to music too loudly, an Arab immigrant named Yousef, a man with an ankle bracelet who ends up arrested through Frank, a couple store employees at a carriage store (who actually do activate a security alarm) and members of a night watch gang. Many of these people would directly benefit from their first instinct of reporting Giovanni to the authorities and those who were assaulted earlier in the season would have little to lose since Giovanni hadn't yet amassed any henchmen.

Ultimately, Giovanni is saved by a number of lucky coincidences (finding just the right piece of incrimination, having a possible tattle tale decide save himself the hassle and not report him, etc) as he takes steps to strengthen his power stronghold on Lillyhammer through forming strategic alliances with the town's power players and coercing anyone who stands in his way. One problem with this premise is that a lot of Giovanni's relationships work through coercion which leaves the loyalty in question. Why Jans decides to beg for his job UNDER the man (a partnership that in season 2 is revealed to  be subservient) who, for all he knew, was responsible for getting him fired from NAV or why Julius would still be a voluntary business partner of a man who blackmailed him when the dirt disappeared (he was in remission) and made insensitive remarks about the kid's son (he calls him "Osama") are not sufficiently explained.

All of  Giovanni's antics are done while attempting to stay under the radar of the local authorities which becomes an increasingly more tenuous plot point to buy when more and more people in the town are in on the secret that Johnny is a crook.When the local police chief, Laila, finally gets some dirt on Giovanni, things become downright anticlimactic: Upon seeing a dead body in the woods, Giovanni convinces her that she has two options "using up thousands of dollars of tax payer money to pursue justice" (um, doesn't she do that with every crook?) or just taking his word that the dead man in the woods was the guy who shot his fallen colleague and letting bygones be bygones. If there's a such thing as an unforgivable plot hole, it's that Laila would walk away at this moment.

Of course, happy coincidences and plot holes are forgivable if they ultimately favor the outcome you were hoping to see but it's hard to see Giovanni as particularly deserving of all the lucky twists of fate he receives. A show isn't automatically weakened if a bad guy is winning against the good guys, but the catch is that the show needs to be aware of who the good and bad guys really are, and it seems as if Lilyhammer isn't grasping that its show is about a bad man:

According to this interview in Rolling Stone, show co-creator and lead actor Steve Van Zandt:
"He's never going to be completely integrated into that society".... "But he is becoming a bit Norwegian and part of the culture."

In fact the show's moralistic and in-universe judgments are mostly reserved for everyone but Giovanni. When the man with the ankle bracelet gets his comeuppance from the police and Johnny sails away consequence-free, are we meant to see him as foolish? Is this a morally equivalent universe in which he gets what he deserves?

The show ended season one with a bittersweet note as his girlfriend (pregnant with his twin children) finally decided she had enough of him and threw him out and it seemed as if an amiable partnership was forming between, but the character hasn't grown and as a result, the show feels stagnant and its lucky coincidences less forgivable.

1 comment:

Garrett said...

Yea, 'Out of Africa' was pretty bad compared to last season.